As the 10-year anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001 draws to a close, the UA community reflects on how the nation has changed over the last decade and questions what the next ten years will bring.
By Abby Godard, ’13 and Victoria Slater, ’12
I remember 9/11 like it was yesterday,” Caroline Pema said. “I had just finished lunch and was walking out of the Barrington Elementary School cafeteria when I saw my mom frantically running to me. She grabbed me and hugged me tightly while telling me that everything was going to be okay. I had no idea what was going on, and I grew afraid.”
Senior Caroline Pema recalls her mother’s attempt to explain the tragic events in New York City, Washington D.C. and Pennsylvania on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. Pema, only in second grade, was too young to fully comprehend what had occurred; however, she did understand that her mother pulled her out of school due to a family emergency.
“I learned my uncle was actually in the World Trade Center that day for work,” she said. “He lives in New Jersey but commuted to New York every day.”
At home, Pema huddled with her family, watching the catastrophic events unfold on TV, waiting anxiously by the phone to hear news of her uncle’s fate.
“I remember seeing horrifying videos and images of the twin towers collapsing,” she said. “Saddened and devastated faces filled the television screen.”
Hours later, Pema’s aunt called to inform her family that her uncle had survived. Fear had driven him out of the damaged building and into the safety of the street below.
“After the plane crashed into the top of the building, a woman’s voice sounded over the loudspeaker stating that everything was OK, there was nothing to worry about, and that everyone should go back to work,” she said. “My uncle knew that something wasn’t right. He was on the 80th floor of one of the towers and fortunately made the decision to descend the stairs and exit the building.”
The survival of Pema’s uncle was not only the result of good timing, but good luck as well. Though undoubtedly thankful, the family remains humbled by an upsetting reality: Thousands of others were not as lucky.
“We are so blessed and thankful that [my uncle] was OK and that he survived, because we knew the severity and seriousness of the situation,” Pema said. “He survived the catastrophic events of 9/11 unlike so many others. I am so grateful, yet saddened that so many others didn’t have the same fate.”
Much like Pema, English teacher Meredith Niekamp looks back on the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and finds it hard to believe that such a tragedy could have occurred just 10 years ago.
At the time, Niekamp lived just outside of the D.C area as an eighth grade teacher. She never fathomed that such a tragedy would occur in the United States, let alone within driving distance of her job.
“I remember planning for a class [during] third period and hearing from students that a plane had hit the Twin Towers,” she said.
Taken aback by such news, Niekamp was in shock. As the day unraveled, she was unprepared to answer students’ questions—many of which she had herself.
“Did you hear about the Pentagon?” asked a student in her fifth period class.
Baffled by the student’s unexpected inquiry, Niekamp stood frozen in time. The Pentagon was just a short drive away from their school in Maryland. Niekamp felt the distance between her school and the attacks of that September day become frighteningly close.
“Then the P.A. came on, and the principal just started calling students out [of class],” Niekamp said.
Interruption after interruption, the principal continued to read a list of seemingly endless names in a matter of seconds telling them to pack up their belongings and go home. Students were still being plucked from Niekamp’s classroom when the last announcement came over the P.A., informing everyone that school had been released. Immediately, Niekamp rushed to the main office to find out what was going on. It was there that she saw for the first time the unbelievable footage of the falling Twin Towers. At that moment, Niekamp was speechless. She could feel the energy of the room tighten as it was swallowed whole by fear.
When the dust settled
The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 left disaster in their wake: a city in ruins, a country torn apart and thousands of families destroyed with the gaping holes left by the 2,819 victims of the attack.
According to the New York Magazine article “Sept. 11 by the Numbers,” 115 nations had citizens killed in the attacks. The entire globe was scarred by that fateful morning 10 years ago.
To Pema and most of the United States, the al Qaeda mission to fly planes into the World Trade Centers and the Pentagon succeeded in creating raw terror. It was the terrorists’ prerogative to address their religious agendas in the most alarming and noticeable way possible.
“I believe 9/11 occurred because religious extremists felt it was suitable to use extreme violence and brutality to solve and address their issues,” Pema said.
That brutality proved to last long after the dust settled at Ground Zero. Niekamp remembers the feeling of constant panic and lack of safety that inhabited her school in the following weeks.
“It was devastating— so many people in the school knew somebody who was involved because we were a commuter city to New York and the Pentagon,” she said. “It truly was a time of terror in a school, and I will never forget the distance that I felt— the geographical distance— between the trailer [where I worked] at the school and people’s houses surrounding the school.”
Niekamp explained that the lingering atmosphere of anxiety was, in a large part, caused by lack of communication. Without the reassurance from government officials, American citizens remained unsure of the safety of their country.
“The chaos of not knowing what was going on was really what left us with that feeling of terror,” she said. “Once the leader of our country addressed the nation, and we collectively knew what had happened, that terror subsided.”
Once the initial feelings of shock diminished, Niekamp said that her school community began to identify the next step to take. After such a tragedy, which took the lives of parents of students and a former staff member, the school needed to determine how to pick up the pieces.
“There were a variety of opinions on how to move forward,” she said. “It was interesting living in the D.C. area, as there were a multitude of ethnicities, and people were quick to say, ‘let’s just go drop a bomb on a whole entire region of the world and wipe everyone off the face of the map,’ in presence of people whose families lived [in those regions]. That revealed some ignorance that was extremely shameful in my opinion.”
Even after Niekamp’s school extensively improved safety procedures and security measures, she still sensed apprehension, especially amongst the student body.
“Students asked a lot of questions about safety, and to me, that translated as fear,” she said.
Yet, Niekamp could not deny the extent to which her community was strengthened in the aftermath of Sept. 11. The mutual fear between citizens brought about a unified goal toward establishing protection for one another.
“I remember the lack of distance between us because, all of the sudden, we knew we were all there together and that we all matter,” Niekamp said.
A ten-year journey
As a result of 9/11, America— regardless of race, ethnicity, background, and gender— came together in a time of crisis to mourn over each life lost as if it were his or her own.
President George W. Bush recognized this unity during his Sept. 21, 2001 State of the Union Address.
“We have seen the state of our union in the endurance of rescuers working past exhaustion. We’ve seen the unfurling of flags, the lighting of candles, the giving of blood, the saying of prayers in English, Hebrew and Arabic. We have seen the decency of a loving and giving people who have made the grief of strangers their own,” Bush said.
President Bush also stated in his address that Americans were going to do whatever it took to ensure that justice would be accomplished.
“Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” he said.
The effects of 9/11 ushered in a new chapter in American history: a battle against terrorism. Now approaching the tenth year of the United State’s involvement in Afghanistan, Americans still have questions. Children in America today do not know a world without terrorism. Operation Enduring Freedom is the second longest war in American history, a mission taking almost three full presidential terms to complete.
Today, with President Bush’s initial goal complete of capturing and killing al Qaeda’s leader Osama Bin Laden—mastermind of the Sept. 11 attacks— an end to such destruction seems closer. In President Barack Obama’s own words, “Justice is done.”
“For over two decades, Bin Laden has been al Qaeda’s leader and symbol, and has continued to plot attacks against our country and our friends and allies,” Obama said in his Justice is Done Speech on May 1, 2011. “The death of Bin Laden marks the most significant achievement to date in our nation’s effort to defeat al Qaeda.”
This achievement gave the United States the opportunity to slowly start withdrawing troops from the Middle East. It also gave Obama the chance to put an end to Operation Iraqi Freedom.
According to CBS News, on Aug. 31, 2011 President Obama put an end to Operation Iraqi Freedom, a war whose objectives Americans still question.
While reflecting on his thoughts and pondering about our nation’s past, junior Griffith Brown stands by former President George W. Bush’s actions following the tragedies of 9/11 and disagrees with Obama’s decision to pull troops out.
“From what I remember, public outcry for retaliation was very significant. Were I in George Bush’s position, I believe I would have done the same thing,” Brown said. “There is obviously much debate on our intentions and our purpose in the Middle East today, but I know for certain that I do not want to leave the countries we invaded just yet. Until those countries are as stable as possible and can function on their own, I do not believe we should pull out.”
While Obama continues to battle controversy over the seemingly rapid conclusion of the War on Terror, it is evident that soldiers engaging in both Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom have established the peace they fought to maintain, no matter how unstable and short-lived that peace may be. For this, Pema explained, she is extremely thankful.
“9/11 has made me appreciate all of the armed forces that have to battle terrorists and terrorism on a daily basis, risking their lives so that we can stay safe and go on with our normal lives,” she said. “It has made me realize that terrorism has no boundaries, can occur anywhere and can affect anyone. It also made me realize the extent to which hatred drives individuals to perform abominable acts.”
As the United States turns the page on Operation Iraqi Freedom, the country looks back where it once was 10 years ago, its citizens finding it difficult to believe that their nation, once brought together by a tragedy, is now torn apart for that same reason.
We are all Americans
The day after Sept. 11, a new world seemed to have fashioned itself in the midst of the destruction. Niekamp recalls the feelings of peace and unity that encompassed the entire globe that day.
“On Sept. 12, I believe the news headlines in France were ‘We are all Americans,’” she said. “That collective support for our country worldwide was profound, and our support for each other as Americans was just as profound.”
However, the question remains if this collective support can be sustained today.
“Now that it’s been 10 years, we’re so divided, over things that matter a lot and things that don’t matter at all,” Niekamp said. “I am saddened that we can’t pull from that tragedy and maintain the notion that life is short and everyone wants the best for everyone else.”
This kind of distance, to both Niekamp and Pema, is the driving power behind such terrorist attacks like 9/11. According to Pema, the most efficient way to divert catastrophes like this in the future is reliability, trust and acceptance within humanity.
“In the future, if people can have more compassion and understanding of other people’s viewpoints and religious beliefs, tragedies like this one will hopefully be much less common,” she said. Pema added that communication is also key.
“Open and honest dialogue about our differences, aspirations and fears will help further the understanding of the worlds’ many cultures and will hopefully lead to greater peace,” she said.
As Niekamp looks toward the future, and wonders how the world will continue to evolve from the events of Sept. 11, she remains optimistic that humanity will retain their unified state once more.
“I’m hopeful that we don’t need something so tragic like [9/11] to be able to come together again. Maybe after 10 years this would be a time to recall those moments where people literally got into their cars and drove hundreds of miles to do whatever they could to support those people who were lost, who were looking, who were working, who were fighting,” she said. “I’d love for us to recall and retain that sense of unity again.”